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The Novi Engine: Great Promise, Little Results

Andy Granatelli and his brother debrief Dick Rathmann during practice at Indianapolis in 1961. Dick was the only one to find the proper speed in the No. 75 Novi, however contractual commitments kept him from driving the car in the race. [Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway]

The last article I wrote was about the dominance of the Offy engine in the Indy 500 for four decades. During this time another engine was also a legend at Indy, but not for the same reasons. That engine was the supercharged V-8 Novi. Even today, this engine possesses a mystique about it; even though it never won a race. The wail of a Novi engine at full song is a sound that will never be forgot in the history of the Indy 500.

The Novi story starts in 1941 when the engine was originally called a Winfield V-8. A business man and racer named Lew Welch entered a car in the 1941 Indy 500. The car was a front wheel drive older 1935 Miller-Tucker Ford racer with a very advanced V-8 under the hood. The engine was a double overhead cam V-8 with a huge 10 inch supercharger mounted in the back of the engine. The supercharger was geared to turn 43,000 rpm. It now became more of a siren than a supercharger. The engine was 183 cubic inches and put out an amazing 450 horsepower at a- for the time-lofty 8,000 rpm. This output was a full 50% higher than the Offys at the time.

Now considering that the chassis for this racer was designed for only 160 horsepower compared to the Novi’s 450, the handling of this car was a hand full is an understatement. To keep the car drivable, the mechanics used every engineering concept at their disposal. They put a wooden block under the throttle pedal to limit the engines output. Ralph Hepburn started the race 10th and finished in 4th place. A very good start, and the Novi legend was given birth. However, there is one fact that I do find very ironic in that the components for the engine were made in Fred Offenhauser’s shop in California.

After World War II, the engine was officially named a Novi after Welch’s hometown of Novi, Michigan. In 1946, Hepburn was back in the Novi and set a new track record of 133.944 mph, though not on pole day. On race day, he started in 19th place, quickly drove through the field and led for 44 laps. He retired on lap 122 with a mechanical failure. This was the beginning of a trend for the Novi. Always fast, but unable to finish.

During the late 40’s and early 50’s, on any given year, the Novi powered cars were the fastest, the loudest (you always knew when a Novi was on the track), but failure prone. They were hard to handle, mostly because the tall, skinny tires just couldn’t deal with a sudden rush of power when the driver needed to accelerate out of a turn. The cars developed another reputation at this time – that of a widow maker. Hepburn lost his life in 1948 in a practice accident. Chet Miller was killed in a Novi crash in 1953 and Duke Nolan was badly burned in a Novi crash in 1949.

By the mid-1950’s, front wheel drive cars were falling out of favor and were being replaced by the rear roadster chassis by Frank Kurtis. Unfortunately, the Novi cars failed to make the race in 1954, 1955, 1959 and 1960. But 1961 was a major turning stone in the history of the Novi. Mr. STP, Andy Granatelli, bought the rights to the Novi engine and embarked on a major program to improve the Novi’s output. One of the big changes was to use a modern Paxton supercharger in conjunction with many internal changes. The net result was an astonishing 742 horsepower at 8200 rpm. Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, I sometimes wonder if they should have slightly reduced the engine’s output to gain reliability.

1963 was probably the best year for a Novi win. Bobby Unser qualified his Novi car in 6th place at 149+ mph. But his race lasted only a minute and a half when he spun on the second lap. Unser was back in 1964 with an advanced four wheel drive Novi and qualified very well in 5th place at 154 mph. But again, a black cloud hung over the Novi car. Unser was caught up in the horrific crash and fireball that took the lives of Dave MacDonald and fan favorite Eddie Sachs.

1966 was the last attempt to qualify a Novi car at Indy. The car was crashed in practice by Unser and was parked. But by now the writing was on the wall and the reign of the front engine roadster was ending, only to be replaced by the rear engine Indy cars powered by turbo Offy’s or Ford V-8’s. During its 25 years at Indy, the best finish of a Novi powered car was third in 1948. But one can only wonder, what if the engine was put in a light weight, rear engine car with an advanced aero package with wide, low profile tires? What is ironic of all of this is that there was a sketch done of a very advanced rear engine Novi powered car in 1964. But it was deemed too radical and not pursued. Maybe we would have had a different ending to the Novi story, but then again, we’ll never know, will we?

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Gene Turk was born with racing in his blood. At age 8 he started racing Quarter Midgets as member of the Great Milwaukee Quarter Midget club. For five years he raced the #7 car that his father built. He then graduated from the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) with a degree in Industrial Engineering and Internal Combustion Engineering.

While in college he obtained his Private Pilot’s License.

Along the way he has attended numerous Indy car and stock car races at the Milwaukee Mile during the 60s, 70sand 80s along with area Midget car races. He would also frequently fly to the Brickyard to watch the Indy 500 time trials in the 60s and 70s and more recently attended the 2014 Indy 500.

He has also attended numerous sports car and NASCAR races at Elkhart Lake Road America. Finally, Gene has owned many classic cars including his present 1990 Corvette and is a self-described “Gear Head.”